Monday, December 9, 2013

Tymbals, Gongs + Ultrasound. The sound of one hand clapping?

CommunalTable is an umbrella for event producers that come together to help each other create salon suppers that "bring art, ideas, activism and food right to the table." Co-founded with catering partner Deena Lebow, we present three or four event a year. 

This one was held in a funky DUMBO loft and on the day of the event it so happened some movie company was filming a bus crash scene on the cobbled neighborhood streets, lending a dream-like air to the entrance of the converted industrial building. Inside you had to wind through a maze of rusted machine shop carcasses that cast elongated anthropomorphic shadows in the waning light. Pigeons, who'd flown through shattered skylight panels to nest in massive ceiling struts were buffeted by breezes perfumed with stray cat urine and odoriferous garbage trucks garaged the floor below. 

At last, first sight into the loft proper was a take-your-breath-away close-up of the Brooklyn Bridge through floor to ceiling windows. Waves on the river below glinted in the rising moonlight while inside, a robotic Gamelatron chimed random half tone harmonics. Chaise lounges and batik throw pillows offered comfy perching spots from which to sip Dragon’s Breath, a cocktail concocted by Mihir Desai from coconut flower aarack, (a fermented Southeast Asian beverage similar to whisky) and velvet falernum (a spicy, citrusy low-proof rum-like liqueur from Barbados) topped with a splash of Chartreuse (a pale green medicinal liqueur dating from the seventeenth c.) We nibbled unnaturally colored pastel shrimp crisps and a rainbow of naturally hued crudités.

The first presenter was philosopher and inter-species musician David Rothenberg , a jazz saxophonist known for his duets with nature. Previously I’d heard recordings of his call and response duets with songbirds, and also a layered composition for birdsong, whalesong and clarinet using sounds stretched and compressed by a run through his synthesizer. For CT he was agog with the promised “Swarmageddon,” the reemergence after 17 years dormancy of the periodical cicada. (BTW: I searched hi and low, here and through a source in Indonesia for cicada powder, a protein-rich flour I’d hoped to make into fritters. Alas, to no avail.) David came with copies of his newly released CD, Bug Music, and serenaded us with screechy cicada inspired syncopations. What I love about David is his ideas about beauty and nature (I wrote about him here), and his passion for the musicality of all sound, but this nights breathy elongated wails set my teeth on edge. To my ears his music really was for the birds. David had brought quite a number of friends with him, all of whom felt they deserved discounted tickets. Gosh, I barely come anywhere near break-even on these events, but nor do I pay my presenters so this request put me in a bind of obligation and debt. One of these friends, loud and testy from Dragon’s Breath, fell mid program into deep, snore-punctuated sleep.

Next: our host Aaron Taylor Kuffner has traveled the world studying gamelan, documenting and working to develop written notation for these traditional Indonesian orchestral societies. Back in Brooklyn he co-created Gamelatron, a collaboratively developed iteration of gamelan using algorithmically programmed computerized robotic arms that strike imported cast bronze gongs. One wall of his loft is devoted to a beautiful Mandala shaped installation of gongs and arms and we had the good fortune to hear them chime.  I had listened to Aaron speak about this project several years back and at that time was profoundly moved by the beauty of the music and by his passion for learning about, sharing and helping to preserve an art form that is in decline.  Since then the Gamelatron has meet with rousing success, causing sadly a grievously swelled head.  Despite the beauty he has created Aaron exhibited a ghastly case of White Savior Complex, exemplifying cultural appropriation at its worst by claiming to have saved the gamelan tradition. He fancies himself THE voice of the music today.  For me, the sound of his arrogance drowned out the extraordinary sound of the gongs. 

Along with the cocktail, Mihir brought his sonicator for show and tell. This device, more frequently used in a laboratory than a kitchen uses sound wave vibrations for cell disruption, particle dispersion, and homogenization. You stick a probe in a beaker of liquid mixed with herbs that is placed inside a box that dulls the ear splitting sound waves that travel through the probe into the liquid, smashing up the cells. Unlike tea where you steep dried herbs in hot water to draw out the flavor, the disrupted cells release flavor without heat so the fresh and raw herbs taste just that, fresh and raw. In the case of the cocktail Mihir infused aarak with Thai basil, and a simple syrup with tropical pandan. Using the sonicator for particle dispersion or homogenization has other applications, for example, vinaigrette. Typically oil whisked with vinegar creates a bond that lasts just barely long enough to dress a salad. In the sonicator the bonds gain strength and longevity and the technique opens possibility for unusual bonds—say lemony duck fat mayonnaise or some such thing. What's cool is that we're used to thinking of cooking being done with heat or by chemical means (like the acid of citrus "cooking" ceviche,) or bacterial fermentation, (like bacteria and salt "cooking" pickles.) Now we can add sound to our arsenal.

Between speakers, guests were treated to Indonesian and Malaysian flavored small plates-- satays with a peanut dipping sauce made by a friend of a friend who cooks for the Malaysian Mission. Then fried sambal eggs with green papaya salad. Slightly undercooked hardboiled eggs are deep fried until golden and crisp and tossed in sambal belacan- a blend of shallots, chilies, toasted shrimp paste and palm sugar slowly fried in coconut oil.  The next plate was fish morsels steamed in banana leaf with sambal oelek, toasted coconut, crispy shallots and turmeric rice. Black sticky rice pudding with coconut cream and chilled mango, and chocolate-dipped biodynamic sundried bananas made dessert. My friend Barry Schwartz has a small operation selling hand-batched tempeh at area farmer's markets made from a recipe he perfected during his years cooking at a yoga ashram. He joined us and cooked up tasting portions of several different kinds of tempeh and told about his process making these fermented grain and bean cakes that originated in Indonesia.


Each element, despite my snippy complaints was more than interesting and the food was plentiful and delicious, so why do I feel the event fell short of my goal, which was to create an evening that broadened and expanded thoughts about sound?  Part of what was missing was cohesion. In planning, I'd gotten excited thinking of all these sounds and took delight drawing connections between sounds found in nature, and as a part of the richness of human culture, and in a unique science-of-sound kind of way, and I built the program on that. But during the event I didn't share my thought process or help the guests connect the disparate parts. Plus, at this event the food acted as decorative frill rather than as a voice in the telling of the evenings story. I realize now I need to spell out the conceptual base of the event both for the audience to fully engage and to guide the speaker’s presentations. This puts me in a position I'm uncomfortable being in, that of director and MC. I much prefer hanging in the back of the house with the food.

What was missing from the evening was that fantastic aha! moment when ideas stretch and expand. And this is precisely a place where food could and should have supported this process. Instead, I relyed on a simplistic obvious connection (Indonesian music = Indonesian food.) To come up with a menu that uses ingredients as well as the experience of eating to address the concepts at hand requires way deeper introspection, and also a willingness to engage and guide the audience. Without doing these more challenging steps, the work remains just an entertainment when what I want is for these events to be art.

Wondering about the sound of one hand clapping is a Zen koan meant to cause reflection. Some believe the sound is silence, a sound we have trouble hearing. In the case of this CommunalTable it was the sound of missed connections. An evening based on all things sound needed the crisp slap of two hands clapping for attention.

Fried Sambal Eggs is a simple and standard Malaysian dish though to me it was a revelation. I'd never thought of frying a hardboiled egg but doing so produces a nutty flavor and the craggy texture holds the sauce. I found making the sambal tricky. Every recipe I read speaks about cooking sambal long enough for the oil to separate and come to the surface, and every picture shows a glorious layer of chili-rich red oil but no matter how long I stirred, this separation never occurred. I've since discovered a tasty sambal in a box I buy in Chinatown. If you're near an Asian market-- look for Khim Yan Curry brand Sambal Nasi Lemak.  To figure out the eggs I used an amalgam of these two recipes (and recommend both sites.)

Green Papaya Salad is made from rock hard unripe papayas with honeydew colored flesh and white seeds, quite different from more commonly found ripe papayas with their shocking orange flesh and black seeds. The papayas vary tremendously in size and last a pretty long time. Basically the salad is a slaw. I prefer the texture of painstakingly hand-cut super-fine juliennes to Cuisinart grated shreds but really either way will make a nice dish.  Just like with cabbage slaw you can add a lot of ingredients or keep it simple. Traditional Indonesian versions include long beans and tomato. Shred 4 cups of peeled, seeded green papaya flesh and toss with 1/4 c. freshly squeezed lime juice, 1 T. fish sauce, 1 T. granulated palm sugar (or whatever sugar you have) and a handful of chopped roasted peanuts and cilantro. Taste for salt.

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